Curiously, one of the most debated items in the entire S.C. House budget process was a combined $70,000 reduction in appropriations to the College of Charleston and the University of South Carolina Upstate. Seventy thousand dollars is an utterly trivial part of a $7 billion House budget, but the reason for the reduction is what raised the ire of many House members.
The dollar amount of the reduction is equivalent to what the two higher education institutions would use to buy first-year students' required reading books that contain gay themes. Some House members as well as other commentators have painted this reduction as both a punishment and as censorship of disfavored ideas.
Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter implied on the House floor last Monday that the reductions in question showed that Republicans are big on talking about freedom but aren't in favor of the freedom to share ideas they oppose. The political director for House Democrats, meanwhile, went as far as describing the reductions as a "book burning."
Both these statements - and many similar remarks were made during the debate - reveal a profound philosophical confusion about the role of government in a free society.
The right to free speech means the right to express ideas in literal speech, print, film or other forms of communication without legal restriction, no matter how distasteful the ideas may be to some.
What free speech doesn't mean is that a speaker can force his or her fellow citizens to pay for the dissemination of the speaker's ideas. Free speech doesn't entitle any speaker to a platform.
The First Amendment begins with the words, "Congress shall make no law." It doesn't say, "Congress shall fund all speech."
Subsidized speech isn't about the rights of the speaker; rather it violates the rights of the citizen who disagrees with these ideas.
To make this argument in the context of the ongoing debate in South Carolina doesn't require condemning the themes in "Fun Home" or "Out Loud: The Best of Rainbow Radio," the titles at the center of the Statehouse debate. The argument against subsidy simply says these ideas, like all others, should attempt to reach out and persuade people through the non-coercive private marketplace. If we wish to have a rational debate, it's critical to realize that no one to this point in the discussion has made any argument in favor of banning or burning any books. To suggest otherwise is to engage in demagoguery. If students are not provided with certain books by the university, nothing is stopping them from purchasing the books themselves.
Even though it took time to come close to realizing the ideal, our country was founded on the idea of equality before the law for all citizens. Neither special legal privilege nor restrictions should exist: that was the ideal. This is why the rights laid out in the first 10 amendments to the U.S. Constitution are almost entirely negative in nature. The founders enumerated rights that protected citizens from the actions of the government, and not positive rights that guaranteed favorable outcomes for any group.
The founders understood a simple truth that is forgotten by many today. Positive rights - whether they relate to speech (the right to a platform) or material goods (the right to a home, monetary wealth, medical care, etc.) - necessarily violate negative rights. For every proclamation of the right to some good or outcome must invoke the question, provided by whom?
The answer of course is the public, i.e. you, whether you desire to provide these goods and outcomes or not.
A true right cannot violate another right. This applies to speech as much as it does any other area.
Thomas Jefferson put it well: "To compel a man to furnish funds for the propagation of ideas he disbelieves and abhors is sinful and tyrannical."
Shane McNamee is a policy analyst at the S.C. Policy Council.
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